What organizations can (should) learn from Narcotics Anonymous (NA)

I had the honor of attending an open meeting with Narcotics Anonymous this weekend. My sister was receiving her badge for her 13th year anniversary. Very proud of her. Since this is a very large part of her life, she really wanted me and our little sister to be there and experience this together with her. As I’m sitting there in a corner, my subconscious starts working, making observations and connecting my observations with theoretical knowledge, comparing with organizations I’ve worked with and trying very hard to suppress my emotions. What follows are my reflections on the observations I made.


The duration of the meeting was 1.5 hours. The first 15 minutes was dedicated to re-iterating the guiding principles, the belief in the process and a few other underlying values. The purpose for everyone coming together was mentioned real quickly as well, to live a drug free life. This is the vision, the long-term objective, the why behind they all gathered here. So clear, so well understood and aligned with everyone. No questions on why everyone was there, what they together, with each other, was trying to achieve individually. When was the last time you worked in an organization which had the same clarity?

During the first part of the meeting they covered all the topics that affected the entire group. Then we moved into individual sharing.

Everyone started off by showing appreciation, this time it was toward my sister who had her 13th year anniversary. What followed was a personal story. The bravery! The whole point for each individual was to share whatever was on their mind. Where are they spending mental energy right now. As a guest and observer, this process was immensely interesting. The level of insight and personal reflection from each individual was inspiring. The question they answered, even though it wasn’t explicitly asked, was –“What is your subconsciousness trying to deal with right now?”

One person shared his struggle to break old habits and patterns. How he, even when conscious and aware of the implications, fell back into circumstances that he knew to be unproductive. Using language very similar to that of the book “The Inner Game of Tennis”. The process he was describing was the same as the author deducted from observing tennis-players that lead to him writing said book. If you’re not familiar with the book, in essence it is about the observed dialogue between your conscious and unconscious self. Very similar to Daniel Kahneman’s description of system 1 and system 2 in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.


Another woman talked about an inner struggle and how she couldn’t really put her finger on what her next epiphany was going to be. Her story was a textbook example of Freud’s theory on the ego and the super-ego as described in his publication “The ego and the id”. With her own words she was describing how her thoughts were on the verge of making the leap from unconscious to pre-conscious. From a state of inaccessible to accessible information and ideas.

There were plenty of examples of the two processes above from the ~15 people sharing. My point here is that this level of insight is what I believe everyone should strive for. The biggest difference here, and what healthy people might have a hard time realizing, is that members of this group has started doing this from a deficiency point-of-view. Maslow speaks about deficiency-cognition (D-cognition) and being-cognition (B-cognition) where a healthy individual need to achieve this level of insight from a B-cognition point-of-view. This in order to have the self-awareness needed to be able to have peak experiences and self-actualize. To explain this in other words, for an individual to reach their full potential, or even begin to understand it, they need to be proactive. Start developing skills for introspection and explore their own value-/belief-structure, from a B-cognition point-of-view and not a D-cognition point-of-view. The thinking here goes in line with “but I don’t have any severe deficiencies in my life, why should I put energy into a therapeutic process for myself”.

A quick meta-view on the overall process shows a lot of similarities to Virginia Satir’s Temperature Reading which she developed in the context of family therapy. Outlining her process 1.Appreciation, 2.Puzzles, 3.Feedback with Recommendation, 4.New Information, 5.Hopes and Dreams, it sometimes shows up in a slightly different order but this is the one I have used. Comparing the steps with what I observed, the NA-meeting starts with #5, this is the shared structure, vision and what they all strive for, to become drug free and stay so. Also how they together will achieve that. The meeting then continue with #4, any information that might be useful to share. Moving into the individual sharing they all start with #1 and spend the majority of their time on #2. This is where the therapeutic power lies, the focus is not to provide answers but to allow the individuals to ventilate. Hearing the stories I can deduce that #3 is a continuous process together with each individual’s sponsor. In any other context the sponsor-role would be called a mentor.

Each individual is also time boxed to 4 minutes, with a gentle reminder at 3 minutes to start wrapping up, making this a very democratic process.

If I move my focus to organizations other than D-based, i.e. companies trying to be competitive. Companies that have the ability and possibility to be proactive, using B-cognition, trying to realize their full potential. How are they doing this on an institutional level? In my short experience, most organizations are not. Neither on an institutional level nor individual level.


By observing this whole process and reflecting on my thoughts also helped me understand why there is a clear correlation, maybe even causation, to the two teams, yes only two, I’ve managed to help become high performing. These were the teams where I used Virginia Satir’s Temperature Reading as a recurring tool.

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